In the introductory chapter of "The Dark Side of the Enlightenment" I had the occasion to ponder the large degree to which written history is concerned with change. “All history must necessarily be concerned either with change or with stasis …” I wrote. “It is safe to say that on the whole historians, particularly modern historians, prefer change.” Our history textbooks are replete with dramatic phrases about “social transformation,” “revolutions” in mores, and the perpetual “rise of the middle classes” who have been rising so long that they by now must be well beyond Saturn, with Uranus heaving into view.
Many of us born around the middle of the 20th century need look no further than our own families to verify the drama of such change. The most superficial comparison of the life experience of my parents and that of our children demonstrates numerous important developments of American life, beginning with the rapid decline of the agrarian system that defined the first century and a half of the republic. Widen the focus in both directions — that is, compare the lives of my 19th-century grandparents and my 21st-century grandchildren — and the drama becomes nearly disorienting.
I had the occasion to muse upon such matters on a September weekend. Probably only a British academic in London could organize a conference of historians to be held in New York on Yom Kippur; but on this Saturday that was the situation that cried out for a little extra grand-parenting and took us up to the city on a Friday afternoon in time to pick up two young granddaughters at the end of their day at the bilingual school at which they are maintaining their fluency in French. That’s just around Gramercy Park, 15 or so blocks from the kids’ home on Washington Square.
New York has to be one of the world’s greatest walking cities, and when the place is on, meteorologically speaking, it is really on. A crisp, bright autumn day is a wonder to be reveled in. Our adventure began with a walk down Park Avenue to Union Square, then a short westward jog to University Place, then down University Place to Patsy’s Pizza — one of 171 establishments claiming to serve “the best pizza in the world” and of 46 more modestly claiming “the best pizza in New York."
The first thing I noted was that although Lulu and Cora Louise love to go to Patsy’s Pizza, it’s not exactly for the pizza. Cora won’t eat it at all. Her invariable order is buttered penne generously garnished with freshly grated cheese. Lulu orders the smallest possible margherita — what might be described as a minimalist pizza. But both of them soak up the vibe at Patsy’s. I think my parents died too young ever to have tasted pizza, though my dear English mother-in-law had at least heard of it. She pronounced it "PITS-uh."
Saturday, the actual day of our grandparental command performance, dawned even more brilliant than the Friday. When the kids arose after a "sleep in" authorized by a seriously hard school week, we got organized for the day’s activities, exiting the house about 11 and heading westward toward the Hudson River at a leisurely pace. Shortly before you get to the West Side Highway on Christopher Street there is a magnificent old brick commercial building which now houses, among Lord knows whatever other important cultural institutions, the American Tap Dance Foundation. Eight-year-old Cora has no lesson today — her specialties being violin, tutored Italian, and the sushi-making seminar offered as an extracurricular at her school — so we leave Lulu to spend an hour working on her stamps and stomps while the three of us cross over to a particularly exciting stretch of the Hudson River Park. It features (among other things) heavily used soccer fields, tennis courts, boat-building ateliers, and stretches of the river dedicated to sailing, kayaking, and sculling.
Merely watching the exertions of so many fit young bodies soon becomes tiring, and we started circuitously back toward the Tap Dance Foundation, stopping off briefly in the thrift shop of St. Luke’s church on Hudson Street, the church where Cora (we remind her) was baptized. At this charity shop you can buy an excellent used white dress shirt for $18. I was unmoved, however, as my wardrobe mainly comes from St. Peter's Thrift Shop in Freehold, N.J., where the going price for the identical item is $1.50. It’s called the "Manhattan Mark-Up," I believe.
The best part of the day still lay ahead, of course. We picked up Lulu (from her terpsichorean tutorial) and some cream cheese bagels (from a deli) and set out, via subway, for the Wall Street Station. This is but a short walk from Pier 11 at the South Street Seaport, from which the free shuttle ferry leaves on a regular schedule for Red Hook in Brooklyn. This remarkable amenity was dreamed up for commercial reasons by the Ikea megastore in Red Hook, and the ferry now makes a preliminary stop at the even newer huge Fairway grocery there. Fairway just happens to be at the end of Van Brunt Street, a few hundred yards away from the house of our son Richard, his wife, Katie Dixon, and their beautiful babe, Ruby.
So my nieces had the great pleasure of sitting on the open benches of a jazzy new ferryboat as they zipped through New York harbor, skirting Governor’s Island, nodding “hello” to the Statue of Liberty, and arriving soon at the Fairway gangplanks to see their aunt, uncle, and baby cousin coming on foot or stroller from the landward direction down Van Brunt Street. We consumed our bagels while our hosts downed roasted corn and spare ribs at an outdoor table of the Fairway café. The scene was lively, colorful, picturesque; a cheeky breeze fluttered the numerous flags and pennants. Here was something of the flavor of Seurat’s famous painting of “Sunday Afternoon at the Grande Jatte” — but none at all of the cotton fields down home.
It was by now midafternoon, but the feasting was still not quite through. We spent another delightful hour strolling over the sun-baked cobblestones of Red Hook in search of some supplementary “dessert” calories. These were easily to be found in bakery or bodega, but our granddaughters set the bar pretty high. Most strollers held out for Steve’s Key Lime Pies, just beyond Rich’s house. This internationally famous emporium, housed in a minimally renovated brick warehouse that looks like an abandoned set for "On the Waterfront," is another that plausibly proclaims its products “the best in the world." There was apparently not room on the signboard for a word about prices: highest in the world. But of course that kind of penny-pinching thinking is my hang-up. It is much attenuated in my children’s generation, and seems to have disappeared entirely from the mental landscape of my grandchildren: the rise of the middle classes.